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Thursday, June 20, 2013

City Island

Sometimes, you just want to be somewhere else besides New York City, although you happen to be in it. And sometimes, you just want to chow down on some fried fishy bits. When those two urges coincide, I advise heading to City Island and eating at Johnny's Reef.

Johnny's is basically an old-fashioned fry shack kicked up a notch or two. They fry fish and seafood, and they do it well. There's also a raw bar (excellent clams) and a bar that serves cheap, STRONG drinks, the kind you haven't seen on offer in 30 years (Planter's Punch, anyone?). The quality is great, and the prices are reasonable. What more is there to say?

The fried scallops and the fried fish filets are the must-haves for me here. Those fried calamari were good, too. And their fried clam strips taste like clam strips used to taste.

It's very informal – everything is sold cafeteria-style, and there's some indoor seating. But go when the weather is nice and sit at the picnic tables outside where there's a gorgeous view of Long Island Sound, with the Throg's Neck Bridge and parts of the almost-forgotten metropolis of New York City in the distant background.

Johnny's Famous Reef Restaurant
2 City Island Ave., Bronx 100464

(6 train to Pelham Bay Park, then take the Bx29 bus to the end of the line)

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Lao Dong Bei (老东北風味), pt. 2

Lao Dong Bei (老东北風味) has held its undisputed place as my favorite restaurant in Flushing for over 6 months now, and, after trying yet another stellar dish this evening, I realized it's time for a new post.

Another delightful little freebie made its appearance tonight:  green beans pickled with a bit of carrot and garlic, with what is essentially kimchi. A bit spicy, but only just enough to tickle the taste buds:

I always find it interesting to try to guess from the name of the dish whether it's going to be "dry" or in some sort of sauce. When I ordered Hot & Spicy Ribs (xiāng là xiǎo zhū pái - 香辣小猪排), I somehow just assumed it would be simmered in a sauce. So, I was a little surprised when this came out:

The surprise, however, was by no means an unpleasant one. Chunks of pork spareribs were fried until just crispy on the outside, moist and tender on the inside, with dried red chili peppers, ginger, scallion, and garlic (and, if I'm not imagining it, a hint of cumin). They were then tossed with whole roasted peanuts and cilantro stems. The result, as with any great dish, is more than the sum of its parts. I thought the dish was balanced perfectly: every time I wanted a contrast to the pork, I had a few peanuts, and the cilantro stems were the perfect aromatic counterpoint and just-different-enough kind of crunch to hold ones interest completely. The amounts of each at the end turned out to be exactly right.

On the menu, there is a misprint of one letter in the name "Fresh Fish in Hot Bean Pasta", but it’s an important difference: it should be "Hot Bean Paste" (dòu bàn huó zé yú - 豆瓣活鰂魚, the fish in question, 鰂魚, being tilapia). Most versions of this dish I've had come out red with chili... this one, as you can see, is all brown, and barely spicy.

No matter – it’s a rich, satisfying, earthy flavor. And the tilapia, naturally, is done perfectly.

If the gauge is "number of times ordered", my favorite dishes here are Baby Cabbage with Meatball Soup and the Chicken in Orange Flavor (chén pí jī - 陳皮雞). Chén pí (陳皮) is literally "dried tangerine peel" (often used medicinally in China), and that is exactly what is used. While the sauce is sweet, the bitterness of the dried tangerine peel - and the zing of the dried red pepper - perk up the flavor considerably, eliminating completely the danger if it becoming cloying. Although it's an overused word in food writing, "addictive" - it least when it comes to me - is the right word here.

There's another "orange" dish on the menu here, one of which the establishment is quite proud, Fried Pork in Orange Sauce (guō bāo ròu - 鍋包肉). This seems to be a classic northern Chinese dish (other northern Chinese restaurants in Flushing offer it, like Spicy Road), but its character is quite different from the above chicken dish. No tangerine peel, for one thing, and no hot peppers - the sweet, sticky sauce is similar, though, subtly flavored with orange and ginger. My Chinese vocabulary guru Audrey tells me that guō bāo means that the meat (ròu) has been marinated with rice wine, salt and chicken stock before deep-frying. Which seems entirely plausible. An excellent dish, however it's done.

Another northern classic, jiān jiāo gān dòu fǔ (尖椒乾豆腐 - Dry Bean Curd with Hot Pepper), is, I think, on the menu at every northern restaurant in Flushing. Lao Dong Bei's is as good as any version around:

Hóng shāo ròu (紅燒肉 - Braised Pork) is another pork dish with yet a completely different character. Hóng shāo refers to a dish that is simmered in soy sauce and sugar (there's usually some star anise in there, too) – it means, literally, "red-cooked". A classic preparation and a wonderful way to cook pork belly. It's divine comfort food. (Pardon the reflective glare... STILL getting the hang of the picture-taking thing.)

I've had a small spate of experiences lately where I have been made to feel like a rather unwelcome outsider at some Chinese restaurants around NYC (this is often a problem at Fujianese restaurants, but certainly not limited to them). So it delights me to be able to tell you that the charming hostess - the wife of the chef - appears, even though her English is quite limited, genuinely pleased that you are dining in their establishment. And the invariably excellent food makes you pleased you're dining there, as well.

Now open until midnight - a welcome development for someone of my nocturnal habits.

Lao Dong Bei (老东北風味)
44-09 Kissena Blvd., Flushing, NY 11355

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, south on Main St. to Kissena, veer left, then 6 more blocks)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Xiao Du Hui (小都會)

I recently ran across a reference to Xiao Du Hui (小都會) online and wondered why I had no clue as to what it was. I have walked past the place dozens of times and never noticed it. But sure enough, there it was, right where the address said it should be. The menu looked interesting and the prices were most definitely right, so in I went.

Xiao Du Hui (小都會 - xiǎo dū huì, which seems to be a way of saying "small town") serves Fuzhou-style food, Fuzhou being the capital of Fujian province in the south. It's a tad surprising to find a Fujianese restaurant in Flushing, bastion of the northern Chinese that it is – most of the Fujianese in New York gravitate toward Manhattan and Brooklyn Chinatowns. But it's there, doing a brisk business for what I have to believe are mostly Fujianese workers around town. The décor is not much to speak of – it is, in fact, a bit dingy – but that’s not why I go to restaurants, obviously. The food is honest cooking for ordinary people. There are very few frills, and it seems that, besides a better-than-average English menu translation, very few concessions are made for Westerners. It may not be for everybody, but it is for me. And it is most definitely a bargain.

Ye frugal diners out there will want to turn directly to the end of the menu, where the heading is not translated into English, but the price of $12.99 is prominently displayed. This page is a sort of family menu, and the price of $12.99 includes one soup from a list of 15 or so at the top (and one soup is large enough to feed 2 or 3) and TWO dishes from a list of almost 70 below that. And if you’d like an additional dish from the list, it's an extra $5.00. Two moderately-hungry eaters (or, that is to say, one of me) will be sated by the two-dish-plus-a-soup menu. Add another dish and you’ve got a small feast for two big eaters... for 18 bucks!

A free dish of preserved radish immediately appeared on ordering. It bears only the most superficial resemblance to the luó bo (蘿卜) at Lao Dong Bei.

Xiao Du Hui's is sliced thicker, not at all spicy, barely vinegary, and slightly sweet. And almost as nice, in fact – just completely different.

I went with the "Golden Fish Soup" (jīn qián yú tāng - 金錢魚湯), mostly because I had no idea what to expect. Even so, it was unexpected: a clear soup of small slices of what seems to be called argus fish or spotted scat in English and slices of winter melon in a sour broth. This fish is not for people who are put off by particularly "fishy-tasting" fish... it’s slightly oily and has a strong flavor. But it works beautifully with the winter melon, and the sour broth cuts the oily quality perfectly.

The "Beef Short Ribs with Salt and Pepper" (jiāo yán niú xiǎo pái - 椒鹽牛小排) were thin slices of cross-cut short ribs (on the bone, of course) coated in a salt-and-pepper seasoned breading, deep fried, then tossed in some chopped scallions and spicy green pepper slices. Delicious

If I hadn't learned some Chinese characters along the way, the "Grilled Meat with Garlic" (suàn miáo là ròu - 蒜苗臘肉) would have been a total shock. But I was ready for the stir-fry of slices of preserved pork and garlic greens that arrived at the table. This is pork preserved in a completely different fashion than that of my Hunan meal the night before – Xiao Du Hui's is a bit sweet and not the least bit smoky. Garlic greens always taste like leeks to me… I guess I'm just not as discerning when it comes to vegetables as I am when it comes to meat. A nice, homey dish.

On a subsequent visit, I tried the seaweed, tomato and tofu soup (fān qié zǐ cài dòu fǔ tāng - 蕃茄紫菜豆腐湯) It was less interesting than the Golden Fish Soup, mostly because the tomatoes – under-ripe and of the supermarket hothouse variety – almost completely lacked flavor. Since tofu hasn't much flavor on its own, this meant the soup was dominated by the taste of the (to my mind, overcooked) purple seaweed (nori). I thought the whole thing was under-seasoned, but that could just be my penchant for strong flavors. Personally, I'd advise skipping it.

五更牛什 (wǔ gēng niú shí) goes by the curious name of "Wu Gen Beef Muscles" on the menu. The literal translation is hardly less curious: Fifth-Watch Beef Entrails. Apparently, the name is taken from the period of time just before dawn, which is supposedly when one needs to start cooking the beef bits in order for them to be ready by lunchtime. And there is quite the assortment of beef bits here - brisket, various sinews, and at least three kinds of tripe – stewed with celery, peppers, and sour cabbage. It's a bit spicy and quite sour, and tastes very southeast Asian to me – rather like a sour curry. It’s not quite my thing – I do seem to prefer the cooking style of Chinese parts a bit farther north – but I think the dish was well-prepared, neophyte that I am to Fujianese cooking.

"Chicken with Food Chow Sauce" (sic) (糟雞 - zāo jī) is my favorite dish here so far. It turned out to be ultra-tender, juicy chunks of on-the-bone chicken simmered with that signature Fujianese ingredient, red wine lees (紅糟 - hóng zāo). Besides ginger, I couldn’t actually figure out what else was in the sauce. All I know is that whatever they do here, it makes the chicken taste like the chicken I used to eat in Portugal… more "chicken-y", somehow, than most chicken in the U.S.  It's a mild dish – don’t be misled by its startling color – and, unlike so many other dishes made with wine lees that I've tried, not the least bit cloying. Absolutely delicious.

The rest of the menu is huge and varied, with a lot of dishes you don't see just anywhere. Lots of noodle soups and rice noodle dishes, too. And they're open until 4 a.m.!

Xiao Du Hui
135-19 40th Rd., Flushing 11354

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, 1 block south on Main, then right on 40th Rd.)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Hunan House (湘水山莊)

I had eaten at Hunan House (湘水山莊 – xiāng shuǐ shān zhuāng, or Xiang River-the symbol for Hunan province-mountain villa) a couple of times before and somehow didn't love it. Then they were closed for a while for renovations, and recently re-opened. I had been hearing good things and decided to give it another try this evening. I'm glad I did.

Their version of the cold ox tongue and tripe appetizer fū qī fèi piàn (夫妻肺片) is quite competent. While the sauce is not as complex and interesting as Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan’s, the quality of the tongue meat and tripe is much better.

The "Lamb in a Wooden Bucket" (木桶羊肉 - mù tǒng yáng ròu) turned out to be a delightful, spicy stew of lamb rib meat and rind, peppers, scallions and straw mushrooms. Beautifully rounded flavor – just delicious. I realized as I was eating this that I had never been served straw mushrooms before that weren't from a can. I had no idea that fresh ones were so lovely!

The real star of the meal for me, though, goes by the name of "Steamed Preserved Meat" (臘味三蒸 - là wèi sān zhēng) on the takeout menu. It's not even listed on their quite haphazardly-organized in-restaurant menu, and I'm certainly glad I asked about it. Ever since I ran across Fuchsia Dunlop's recipe for "Smoky Flavors Steamed Together" in her Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, I had been wanting to taste such a marvelous-sounding dish, and, as far as I can tell, none of the other Hunan restaurants around town offer it. Hunan House's version is spectacular, with Chinese bacon, preserved beef, preserved duck, thin slices of smoked bean curd, and just enough hot pepper to cut through the dense thicket of flavors. Definitely more than the sum its parts, I could eat this dish every night for the next week.

The experience produced one sour note: since this place is a bit more expensive than most of the places I write about (but still a good value), I decided to charge the meal to a credit card. (Unlike most of the places I write about, they do accept credit cards). The check folder and takeout menu both say they accept American Express, but when an American Express card was tendered, we were told they don't accept it. They either need to start accepting the damn card or stop indicating to the public that they do.

Hunan House
137-40 Northern Blvd., Flushing 11354

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, north 4 blocks to Northern Blvd., then right 3 blocks)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Rural (興順逹)

Flushing sure has a lot of good Dongbei restaurants these days. Tonight I joined a small group of Chowhounders at Rural (興順逹) (the Chinese name seems to be one of those names chosen for its "good omen" quality and has nothing to do with the concept of anything rural). I thought I had eaten there before a while back, but when I walked in, I realized my memory had confused it with the restaurant next door. There is a reason I never blogged about the other one... Rural, on the other hand, is very good.

It's great to be able to try a lot of dishes, and, as is to be expected, there were some real hits as well as some near-misses. As anyone with a passing acquaintance with this blog will have gleaned by now, I am most definitely a carnivore, tending to be rather less interested in seafood. The scallion conch (葱油螺片 - cōng yóu luó piàn) is one of the better conch dishes I've tried, but I think I'm just not destined to be terribly fond of conch. Some pieces were tender, others fairly chewy... overall, probably the least rubbery conch preparation I've had, with a nice fresh, briny flavor.

Another near-miss was the "Leek with Urechis Unicinctus", or stir-fried sea intestine (sea worms) with chives (韭菜海肠 - jiǔ cài hǎi cháng). This is a dish from Quindao (the owners of Rural are, I believe, from Lianoning) and it was much better at the now-defunct M & T. Still, not bad - like chewy squid-flavored hollow tubes. The general consensus was that the chives were nicer than the sea intestine.

The "Sarony Cumin Flounder" (孜然龍利 - zī rán long lì), however, was fantastic (it has been suggested that "sarony" is a misspelled "savory"... I have no clue). A whole flounder is covered in a dry cumin spice mixture (reminiscent of a spicier version of Lao Dong Bei's Xinjiang lamb chops), then wok-fried. The fish, enchantingly, emerges in the shape of the wok. I would happily eat that spice mixture on almost anything.

Dry Bean Curd with Spicy Pepper (尖椒干豆腐 - jiān jiāo gān dòu fǔ) is a very good version of this typical northern Chinese dish, with the welcome addition of some ground pork.

The stir-fried garlic sprouts (蒜薹 - suàn tái) was one of my favorite dishes on the table. It's not on the menu, but the hostess is happy to recommend things they have that day, and I'm very glad this was on offer. The firm-yet-tender sprouts are stir-fried with bits of beef and some oyster sauce. Delicious.

The hóng shāo ròu dùn yún dòu (紅燒肉炖芸豆) was, predictably, my favorite dish of the evening. Cubes of pork belly stewed with runner beans, chunks of potato, garlic, and dà pí (大皮 - mung bean starch noodles) - it's marvelous, and, in the words of the hostess, very Dongbei-style. Not on the menu, but definitely worth asking for.

I want to eat this dish again, but I think I'll probably wait until winter to do it - it's very warming.

Cold appetizers were good, and an apparent specialty of the house. Crystal Pig Skin (pig skin in aspic - 水晶猪皮凍 - shuǐ jīng zhū pí dòng) was on every table but ours (in fact, one table had nothing but several of the cold appetizers). Preserved Egg with Tofu (皮蛋豆腐 - pí dàn dòu fǔ) was very mild and comforting:

Conversely, the Ox Tongue and Tripe with Spicy Pepper Sauce (夫妻肺片 - fū qī fèi piàn) was a bolder version than usual, heavy on the Sichuan peppercorn and soy sauce, and incorporating a wider variety of intestinal tract bits than what's normal for this dish (notice the honeycomb tripe):

Rounding out the feast was an assortment of excellent dumplings, a good deal at 6 bucks for 20:

I'd suggest going early or late - the restaurant is quite small - only 6 tables - and there seems to be a group of hardcore regulars. Partway through our meal, we were given the quite definite impression by an arriving group that we had taken "their" table.

All in all, an excellent meal. I'm not sure how often I'll get back here, though - the existence of the wonderful Lao Dong Bei means most of my northern Chinese cravings will be satisfied there first.

Rural (興順逹)
42-85 Main St., Flushing 11355

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, then 8 blocks south on Main St.)

Saturday, June 1, 2013

White Bear (白熊)

Posting about the wontons in red oil (紅油餛飩 - hóng yóu hún tún, or just ask for No. 6) at White Bear (白熊) is something I can't believe I haven't done... I've been meaning to forever. Quite simply, it's one of my favorite snacks in New York.

White Bear is run by a couple from Shandong, and their handmade wontons are, to this American, astonishing. The wontons are almost dumplings, really - the biggest difference is the wrapper. But what a difference it is: the wrappers are firm yet delicate, almost gossamer, and literally melt in your mouth. They enclose a pork and chive filling that is equally delicate in texture and seasoning. The red-pepper-infused oil is surprisingly mild, but the scallions, dried sumac, and the earthy-tasting chopped pickled vegetable create an overall flavor that is complex and infinitely satisfying. Every time I eat this dish, I want it to go on forever.

A bargain at $4.50 for 10 meaty wontons.

Their sesame noodles are simple and delicious, and quite popular, and they do a brisk take-away business of frozen dumplings to prepare at home.

White Bear (白熊)
135-02 Roosevelt Ave. (entrance on Prince St.),
Flushing 11354

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, then one block west on Roosevelt)